The Old Era
By Erin Gardner
Nelson remembers exactly where he was when she left. He even remembers what he was wearing.
He wakes up, rubs his eyes raw, fumbles for his glasses, pulls his black jeans over the boxers, fumbles on a white t-shirt, kisses her, and slips on the lucky jean jacket. He starts mumbling “Stairway to Heaven” and sips his coffee from a mug. He parks his Volkswagen Beetle and while walking into his cubby, he sorts through the articles from the previous days.
Hours later, he is unlocking the apartment and stumbles upon the emptiness. She is gone, her suitcases are gone, and the boxes are packed up. He looks for a note but finds a Chinese menu. He tries calling her parents, her desk, but finishes by calling for rice. He’s not even hungry.
The next morning, he wakes up by hearing her undo the lock. He tries to stop her but her tears stop him. The next morning, he wakes up by hearing her undo the lock. He tries to stop her but her tears stop him.
She stumbles through the tears and coughs. “Nelson, you’re not here.”
“Leila, I’m in boxers, holding you.”
No, Nelson. You’re not here. You come home and you bury yourself in articles about coffee shops filled with hippies that have a cult following of Woody Allen. You’re not here.”
“Okay Leila. But I can be. I can be here-”
“No, you can’t Nelson. You can’t. You never have been able to. You married our job instead of me and blocked everyone else out.” She sighed and sniffled. “For what it’s worth, I loved you. Goodbye Nelson.” And with that, she leaves. She picks up the two boxes and leaves the heavy door to swing shut.
He comes home from work on a chilly November afternoon, layers on two sweaters because he didn’t pay the utility bill. He clucks away on the typewriter for a few hours then rummages around for an old pizza delivery menu. Eating greasy pizza, Nelson walks around the apartment and cracks open an old beer. He cranks open the window and slides down the wall, just waiting for her to walk in and smile. After a few slices, Nelson picks himself up and wonders aimlessly around the apartment. He wanders into their room, opens the closet, and is surprised. There sits a lone cardboard box that reads ‘The Old Era’. He takes the slice by his teeth, tips one end of the box and heaves it into his arms. Stumbling, he sets the box down by the pizza, pops open another beer, and wraps himself in a blanket. He stares intently at the box while eating another piece, willing it to open itself. After taking three large sips, Nelson opens it and when he looks inside, he gasps and a fit of coughing follows.
Inside the box were memories of their relationship.
He pulls out “The Raven” and he remembers. The first time they met five years ago, in 1967, was at a bookstore. Nelson sped in because he needed a book about the discourse of journalism for his midterm. His plan was to study that book under the safety of his lamp in his dorm until the smell of coffee pulled him into reality. But then he met her. Leila. He saw her through empty slits in the bookshelves. She had her blonde hair pulled up, she hid behind her large glasses, and her lips were pursed in worry. Nelson walked around the aisle and tried to make casual conversation. He tried to make out a ‘hi’, but she whipped around and he dropped the book that awkwardly disrupted the palpable silence. He picked the book up and saw that her skirt was caught on the edge of a shelf. He pointed and she quickly flattened the thick, knit skirt and pulled on her sweater. He tried again and the conversation was successful. Leila was there for her design class; she was trying to research different formats of magazines to develop her own. Nelson invited her for a cup of coffee at the café attached to the bookshop and took her trench coat while he pulled out the chair for her. He ordered a black coffee and she ordered a latte. They talked for hours and laughed until they cried. Leila told Nelson that her favorite author was Poe; he knew she was one of those hopeless gothic romantics. He told her Kerouac was his literary hero; she knew he was one of those New York natives that loved large pizzas and driving all the same. After the cups were empty, he took her back to the poetry section, stood in front of the Ps and told her to pick one. She picked “The Raven” and he gave a small smile. They walked out and she read the poem for five long years, hoping he would notice and pull out the chair for her just one more time.
Nelson slaps himself back into reality. He starts on another greasy piece and pulls out the Polaroid camera from the box. He wrestles around and eventually digs out the Polaroids. He looks and he remembers. After she graduated from York State in 1968, she bought the Polaroid Automatic 250 and took it with her everywhere. He looks through the yellowed Polaroids. One specifically, of Nelson with glasses, in his boxers and a Harvard t-shirt, with a package of bacon in his teeth accompanied with a cup of coffee in his hand. Nelson greeted Leila with a “hi, beautiful” and she laughed, yawned, readjusted her glasses, and poured herself her own cup. She turned around and saw him. She grabbed the camera off the counter and snapped the picture. She shook it until it developed and ran off to hide it. Nelson flips to another picture. He was at his makeshift desk. From the angle, his back could only be seen, but the situation was clearly visible. Nelson was at his desk overlooking the crank windows, he was typing articles, ironically about Woody Allen impacting filmmakers everywhere. Leila had tried to make him take a break, to walk around the farmers’ markets in the square with her, but he snapped about something in the office. She picked up her camera, snapped the picture, put it in the box, and made a cup of coffee for herself. She whispered into the steam all of the sweet nothings that she couldn’t say to Nelson.
Nelson stands and opens all the windows, allowing the cold blast of wind take him back into his reality, a dirty, empty New York apartment in 1972. He pops open two more beers and sits back down to rearrange the blankets. Blindly pulling crinkled papers out of the box and taking large sips, Nelson groans and remembers. The love letters, dated 1967, were the communication between the couple. The exchange in total, lasted for about a year after the first time they met until they moved in together as Leila finished college and Nelson landed the reporter job. Nelson, in his senior year, stayed up countless hours writing those letters, breaking pencils. Leila would push her design magazines and textbooks to the floor to write page after page. They professed their love, and they loved the love they professed. But the coffee-stained paper was replaced with clean typing paper and old ribbon. The ‘I love yous’ were replaced with newspaper pages flipping and the typewriter clicking.
Nelson takes off his glasses, rubs his eyes and runs his hand over his jaw. He looks at the empty beer cans, sighs, and decides he should lay off the alcohol. He looks over at the clock and is shocked to notice that it is 2 a.m. Standing up, he grabs the Polaroid camera and his heavy coat, and makes the long journey to 42nd for a cup of coffee at 2 a.m. The line is quiet considering the late hour. Nelson stands and his eyes wander to the floor when he sees her. He knows it because the shoes-petite oxford heels. He takes a breath, waits his turn, orders a black coffees and decides to leave $10, covering her order as well. He takes the cup and walks out; he couldn’t do that to her. Even if she was the one that got away. After about a half a block, he feels a tap on his trench coat. He turns and she breathes, “Nelson.”
“I found the box, Leila.”
“Oh.” They stand there for several minutes and Nelson suggests, “Leila, I don’t.. I just want to talk.”
They walk back to 42nd and sit at a small table in the back. Leila speaks up with, “Nelson, have you slept?”
“I couldn’t sleep at my parents” She half-heartily chuckles and adds, “The pillowcases are already wet.”
“I drowned the tears in the pizza.” They make small talk long after their coffees were finished until Nelson hesitantly asks if she would like to walk over to the diner for early breakfast. She agrees and Nelson walks beside her, holds the door open, and lets her sit on the stool first.
“Nelson, you understand why, right?”
Nelson sighs and nods. “I know. I understand.”
“You have a job, I have a job. It just wasn’t right.”
“It was right for five years-“
“No, Nelson. Not really. I came home frustrated with the magazine, you were worried about word count. You blocked me out.” The tears start. “And, I loved you Nelson, I really loved you.”
“I loved you, too, Leila. I would kiss you in the morning before coffee, I would wrap you in the white afghan, I would leave you notes when the mirror steamed during your showers-”
“Nelson, I tried so hard to make it work. I sat there while you typed and read the drafts to me. I interviewed people for the dopy, cultural columns and walked down to the police station, pretending to be your secretary, for the autopsy reports during your investigative days. I made so many errands to buy paper and ribbon and ink and pens. When I would walk in the apartment, you would sit there at the desk and grab the bag without looking up. Nelson, I tried and I was so tired.”
Nelson sighs and closes his eyes. “I know Leila and I am so sorry. I know now.” He signals for the check, pays, and they walk aimlessly. Nelson pulls out the camera. Leila smiles. He asks for a picture, she nods. The camera flashes and he shakes until it develops. They look at it, he takes out a pen and writes, ‘The one that got away’. He stashes the pen and camera, holds close to the picture, and they part ways. They part ways from the Old Era.